Posted by: Rob Viens | February 5, 2012

Learning to Keep a Field Journal

On February 5th Darwin was still collecting marine samples, preparing for the Beagle to set sail across the Atlantic. He made note of the early sunset (and shorter days) in the topics compared to England in the summer, but overall keeps his daily entry short.

During their time in Cape Verde, the Beagle “team” had set up a base on Quail Island.  I had not been able to find a Quail Island on any modern maps and surmised it was either Santa Marina Island (just off shore from Porta Praia) or an island too small to show up on any maps.  It turns out it was the former.  Darwin’s 1844 publication Geological observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beaglecontains a nice little map showing the island (as well as other sites he visited while on Santiago):

Map of Praia from Darwin

Darwin notes that one of the reasons for the Beagle’s delay in Praia was that the “Captain is so much engaged with experiments on Magnetism”. This is probably as good as any place to mention that the primary mission of the H.M.S. Beagle (on this, it’s second voyage) was to accurately map the coast of South America for the betterment of the British Empire. Officially the Beagle was a survey ship of the Royal British Navy, and Robert Fitzroy was its captain. (Fitzroy was reassigned as captain on the first voyage of the Beagle, when the ships former captain, Pringle Stokes, couldn’t take the pressure of the solitude of Tierra del Fuego and shot himself.) Porto Praia was a key stop for the Beagle, as the captain needed to calibrate the ships 22 chronometers at a site where the longitude was well known. (More on Fitzroy and the chronometers at a later time.)

Captain Robert Fitzroy:

Robert Fitzroy

I find it interesting that there is no evidence that Darwin kept a diary before his Beagle trip.  In fact,, it would appear that he learned to do so (and was encouraged in this endeavor) by Captain Fitzroy.  Fitzroy kept a regular journal, as was expected for a naval officer in his position and according to John and Mary Gribbin, in their biography of Fitzroy, Darwin learned to not only make time for a daily personal journal, but also learned the importance of keeping multiple journals (to separate personal and scientific observations).  In this case, he kept at least three journals that I am aware of  – his personal diary, a geological journal and a zoological journal).  The Gribbin’s quote Darwin scholar Janet Browne:

“In keeping such copious records, he learned to write easily about nature and about himself. Like Fitzroy, he taught himself to look closely at his surroundings, to make notes and measurements, and to run through a mental checklist of features that ought to be recorded, never relying entirely on memory and always writing reports soon after the event. … Although this was an ordinary practice in naval affairs, it was for Darwin a basic lesson in arranging his thoughts clearly and an excellent preparation for composing logical scientific arguments that stood him in good stead for many years afterward.”

I find this interesting for two main reasons:

  1. Fitzroy helped Darwin to grow as a scientist – Darwin was still young and it already is clear that the Beagle voyage really honed his scientific skill.  It is sort of neat to know that Fitzroy played a role in that training. Come to think of it, I can still remember the geology grad students and professors (Dirk, Dan, Julie, Rick and Jeff – really I remember you) who taught me how to keep my first field journals more than 20 years ago.
  2. Darwin’s subsequent field observations provide an incredibly reliable resource for him to base his later hypothesis on.  Any good scientist knows that a hypothesis is only as good as the data that support it.  In his journals Darwin created an incredible detailed dataset giving that much more strength to an idea that would later become the cornerstone of biology.

And, it goes without saying, this blog wouldn’t be possible without them either! (RJV)


  1. […] or status.  For example, he learned to keep a field journal from aristocratic Robert FitzRoy (see Learning to Keep a Field Journal). But he also had no problem befriending (and speaking highly of) John Edmonstone, a freed black […]

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